A Day with the Assassins
As Joanne and I strolled uphill towards the ruined castle of al-Kahf, accompanied by Ahmed, our police escort, five men came around a bend and made their way towards us.
Maybe it was just the sinister vibes emanating from the headquarters of the original suicide terrorists, but I suddenly felt the men approaching us were the embodiment of evil. I try not to judge people by their appearance, but they looked so villainous that I decided to make an exception. I could picture their faces on a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster. One man had a nose that made George Chuvalo’s look straight. Another sported a livid knife scar across his skeletal cheeks. A third had the mad eyes of Charles Manson. Between them they might have had one complete set of teeth.
They all carried shovels and had the furtive air of criminals caught in the act. For the first time we were glad to have Ahmed with us. The diggers gave him a glare of pure hatred as they passed. He stiffened, grasped the butt of his rifle, and stared at their retreating backs.
“Who the hell were those guys?” I wondered.
“Beats me,” said Joanne. “I just hope there aren’t more of them up there.”
Through a mixture of mime, my pidgin Arabic and Ahmed’s non-existent English, we learned that the men were looters looking for treasure. Throughout the Middle East villagers have always associated ruins with legendary buried hoards of gold. These five had been doing a little unofficial archaeology.
Ahmed oozed sleaziness and seemed smitten by Joanne and her long blond hair, always trying to walk directly behind her, eyes fixed on her hips. I tried to interpose myself as we continued onto the top of the cliffs. Ahmed mimed handcuffs and gestured towards the retreating band of thieves. Eager to divert his attentions, I nodded enthusiastically.
Next he brought his index fingers together side by side, emphasizing, I thought, that we were to keep close together. I nodded again. He gestured again, conspiratorially, at the three of us and grinned excitedly, making another sign that took me a moment to decipher. Bringing his thumbs together, he poked a finger between them. Suddenly, with a sinking feeling, I realized it was the Arabic sign language for sex. I mimed incomprehension and remarked casually to Joanne, who was being careful not to make eye contact with him, “I think Ahmed is suggesting a quick ménage a trois in the bushes.”
“I see. What did you say?”
“I’m pretending I don’t understand. Just stay close to me, OK?” I remembered reading that the Assassins, the former lords of the castle, were accused by their enemies of being incestuous sexual perverts, as well pork eaters, wine drinkers and cannibals. I wondered gloomily whether Ahmed was one of their descendents.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. There we were in Hama, Syria, wondering where to go next. We’d explored Krak des Chevaliers, the magical 13th-century Crusader castle south of town, and Apamea, the huge ruined Roman city to the north. “Let’s do a day with the Assassins,” I suggested, leafing through the guidebook. “We read about them in Foucault’s Pendulum, remember? There are a bunch of their castles near here.” And so we found ourselves in a bus the next morning, headed westward toward Masyaf, reading up on Assassin history.
Marco Polo gives the most famous European account of this secretive medieval organization, a forerunner of today’s Hamas or al-Qaeda, which fascinated and appalled Polo’s contemporaries with its suicide terrorism. He tells of the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of a heretical Islamic sect. “In a valley between two mountains he had had made the largest and finest garden that ever was seen,” flowing with rivers of milk, wine and honey, full of fruit trees and beautiful damsels. According to Marco, the fidai, the young men of the sect, were drugged and brought into this Garden of Eden and told that they were in Paradise. After savouring its sensual delights for a few weeks or months, they were drugged again and brought back to the outside world. The Old Man would promise them a return to Paradise if they killed a particular enemy of the faith and died in the attempt, and the fidai were understandably eager to sacrifice their lives in a blaze of murderous glory.
Members of the Ismaili sect of Islam, the Assassins were persecuted by orthodox Sunni Muslims for their perceived heresy and fought back with a well-planned murder campaign. The lengthy list of enemy leaders, both Sunni and Crusader, who died under their blades is impressive, including three Caliphs, a Seljuk Sultan, Viziers of Persia, Baghdad and Egypt, princes of Mosul, Damascus and Homs, numberless Sunni qadis (religious leaders) and the Crusader King Conrad of Jerusalem, while Saladin, Edward I of England and Mongke, the Mongol Great Khan, all survived Assassin plots. Hostile rulers wore armour under their clothes, lived in perpetual fear of their courtiers or bodyguards turning out to be disguised fidais and paid huge sums in protection money to the Old Man of the Mountain.
From their base in northwestern Iran, the Assassins (the name comes from hashisheen, referring to their alleged use of hashish) infiltrated the An-Nusariye mountains along the Syrian coast in the 12th century, building, buying and capturing a network of castles. The Jebel An-Nusariye was a wise choice. Even today the inaccessible folds of the coastal mountains of the Levant shelter religious minorities: President Assad’s Alawi sect, a few surviving pockets of Ismailis, Christian villages clustered around Crusader castles and, further south, the Druze and Maronites of Lebanon.
Our bus sped across the plain of the Orontes River towards this hotbed of heresy. From a distance, Masyaf castle dominated the town. It looked impressive with its turrets and walls shining white in the winter sunshine, but not well-situated for defense. It barely rose above the town, and the mountainsides behind it looked like perfect places for an attacker to place catapults.
We wandered through the streets to the castle. Up close it looked less imposing, a pint-sized fortress sitting on an insignificant hillock. It was hard to believe that it had withstood an assault in 1176 by the redoubtable Saladin. He broke off the siege abruptly in mysterious circumstances. Some sources claim he awoke one morning to discover a dagger and a threatening message from the Assassins beside him on his pillow, the 12th-century equivalent of finding a horse’s head in your bed. Others say that an Assassin dropped out of a walnut tree as Saladin rode beneath it, and the Muslim hero was only saved by the miscalculation of the fidai, who bounced off the horse’s rump and was promptly dispatched to Paradise by Saladin’s bodyguard.
The impressive entrance gate was topped by an ancient Assassin inscription and a modern re-election banner for President Assad; for a man running unopposed, he was sparing no effort to ensure another 99.9% share of the vote. There was a tumble-down air to the castle, and, looking closely, we could see how the builders had re-used Roman columns for the foundations of the walls. The Crusaders had held the castle before the Assassins, and their handiwork was evident in the fine stonework in some of the walls. It wasn’t bad as castles go, but lacked a distinctive Assassin ambience. Hoping to conjure up ghosts of the past, we retraced our steps to the bus station, eager to reach al-Kahf, the hidden headquarters of the Old Man of the Mountain.